Coaching Corner

Coaching Corner - April 2016

Lately I’ve run into Asian colleagues that say they have obtained a “seat at the table” but they don’t feel heard or that no one is listening. It sounds like progress is being made and there is some visibility, but how can we become part of the conversation?

I feel your pain! Through my own experiences I've found that getting a seat at the table is great, but has absolutely nothing to do with being heard once you're there.  While it gave me a certain amount of satisfaction to place the blame on those others at the table who obviously didn't know who I was -- at least that's what I told myself (ha!) -- it's a lot more productive to start with a critical and honest self-evaluation. Here are a few things you might want to reflect on:

  • Have you positioned yourself as an active contributor or an observer, leader or supporter? You know where I'm going with this, right? If you're viewed as more of a silent observer -- which is one of our dominant Asian stereotypes -- who rarely speaks out, or speaks only when supporting the ideas of others, then people will tend to minimize or discount your voice at the table. You’re not seen as an active player with any kind of serious “cred.” Ouch!
  • Do you make it a point to be visible within the organization? This is kind of like running for elected office. The more people see, hear, and know your name in relationship to your successes or accomplishments, the more front of mind you’ll be for all the right reasons. And, the more people will seek you out to get your input. Don’t keep your wins a secret. Find appropriate ways to keep a high and positive profile. I know, that’s so un-Asian! Don’t worry. You won’t be asked to leave the village. As long as you’re known for the right reasons.
  • Have you built and nurtured meaningful relationships? This is important because sometimes it really is all about who you know, and not necessarily what you know. When people see that you’re aligned with those within the organization who are respected and held in high esteem, they’ll pay more attention to you and listen more seriously to what you have to say. It’s called “power through association.” Of course, if what you have to say is lacking in substance, or otherwise lame, then your reputation will quickly erode from perceived power broker to hollow suck-up. Then you will be asked to leave the village. Seriously.
  • Did you do your homework? In other words, have you worked to be a competent, knowledgeable, fully prepared source of information. Or, are you in the habit of “shooting from the hip” and hoping for the best?

If you think you’re doing all of the above and are still not being heard at the table, then it’s time to ask for feedback and guidance from a trusted and respected source who has had opportunities to observe you in action. That person could be your boss. Ask for honest feedback and advice on what you can do to become a voice of influence. Seek input from others who have cultivated a strong and respected voice. Not only can you benefit from their experience, but there’s a good chance you’ll win them over as allies who will help to make sure your voice gets heard. Whatever you do, don’t give up! You deserve to be heard. You were given a seat at the table for a reason. Don’t let it go to waste!

-Vanna Novak, Speak to Persuade

Coaching Corner - March 2016

What’s the best way to approach an executive about being your mentor (assuming they know you and are aware of your work)?

"First of all, kudos for thinking about approaching someone to be your mentor.  As I suspect you know, great mentors can have a tremendous impact on one's career and growth. And how wise you are to be thoughtful in your approach!

I believe the main things to think about are knowing what you want from this mentor -- and why --  and then doing your homework to know what is important to the mentor that would make it worthwhile for she/he to mentor you.  This is especially true if you are looking for a formal mentoring relationship.  Taking an informal approach that could evolve into something more formal over time may be another way to go -- for example, starting with coffee or emails asking for advice, following up with the executive on the advice, and keeping him/her apprised on developments can slowly build THE relationship and result in A MORE formal mentorship.  Cultivating a mentor relationship can be like other new relationships involving compatibility and mutual interests.

Consider how you can engage with this person in a way that creates good positive energy and makes a good memorable impression, regardless of the whether or not they agree to be your mentor.  You can only do your best in making your request, and but you cannot control the other person's response (and he/she may have a good reason for declining that has nothing to do with you).  If you distinguish yourself in a good way and have an engaging interaction, you will leave a good impression that may stick with them.

In my own career, I've had mentors who helped me hone my legal skills, helped in my professional development (making sure I was getting the right amount of responsibility, experience and visibility), and sponsored me in my promotion to law firm partner.  I worked closely with those mentors and they continued to help with career advice even when I changed law firms and ultimately transitioned my career to leadership development. I also formally and informally asked others to mentor me in my new career, keeping them apprised of my career development and work I've been doing, sharing perspectives and looking for opportunities to work together and/or refer work to each other.

Without knowing more about your situation, my instinct as a coach is to answer your questions with questions that may help you come up with your own thoughts on how to proceed:

  1. What, specifically, do you want in terms of mentoring from this person, and Why?  
  2. What are you hoping will be different for you and for them as a result of this mentoring relationship?
  3. How well do you know this person (or how well does this person know you)? 
  4. Do you have a working relationship with this mentor? If so, are you strong performer?
  5. What would this person get out of mentoring you?  Are you an up and comer?  Are there ways you can help this mentor?  Does this person like to mentor people? What do you know about what the mentor cares about? 
  6. If this person is a strong mentor, the likelihood is she/he finds it gratifying, but also that they may be already mentoring others.  So how can you be respectful of their time?
  7. Think about what you can contribute to the mentoring relationship.  What can you share from your vantage point?

Walking yourself through Vanna's Fast Five Steps can be beneficial.  How can you pull them in -- getting their attention and distinguishing yourself in a good way?  What is the pain or challenge you are dealing with?  How can being mentored by this person help?  What can you contribute to the mentoring relationship (think KOM or their WIIFM)?  What would a successful mentorship relationship look like and how might it work (keeping mind they might have their own ideas about this)? 

Good luck!"

- Colleen Yamaguchi & Vanna Novak